Saturday, January 29, 2011

Why you should read Mystery and Manners again.

The rationalist approaches the peacock and sees, possibly at first glance, beauty. But, after the beauty has worn off and the tomatoes have all been eaten off the vine, the scientist hears nothing but the screeches and sees nothing but dinner. The writer, however, sees the King of the Birds.
            The writer writes because, when the rationalist is done with all the defining and the categorizing and the mystery of life has finally been “revealed” and exhaustively understood, more mystery is found underneath it. Flannery O’Connor, in Mystery and Manners, says that if you are asked to explain what you are writing about, the only sensible answer is to say, “Read the story.” If what we write about can easily be summed up in a one-sentence theme, then why have we wasted our time writing for pages? It is, in fact, impossible to divide the theme from the story, just as it is impossible to divide the incarnated Christ from God Himself. The mystery cannot be understood without the body, the tangible, just as the concrete cannot be understood without mystery. Flannery writes that stories cannot be limited to character motivation or right theology. The writer “has to be concerned with these only because the meaning of his story does not begin except at the depth where these things have been exhausted." This must, I believe, be the litmus test I use to assess my own writing, though O’Connor would laugh at the irony of my applying human formula to measuring Mystery.
            Mystery, Flannery says, is an unflinching look at the true condition of humanity and all of its horrors, and finding that the God who evaluates it all has deemed it worthy to die for. Religion doesn’t limit the artist; it, in fact, frees the artist to see the fullness of the human experience. If God accepts it all, then who are we to look away. As a doubt-filled believer, I can firmly take hold of this call to not try to understand it all, but to tell all of what I see, particularly in the deep recesses of my heart and mind. The role of uncertainty is possibly one of the main tools the Christian artist must use in interpreting life through art.
            Manners would then be the what of what I see: the daily routines, the accents, the figures of speech, the clicks and tics, my conflicting thoughts, the sinner and the saint in each character. A whole character does not live since there is no such thing on the earth. The broken, whole-enough or thoroughly shattered person lives, not because the writer makes her live, but because something else has brought her to life. As soon as my writing takes a turn into certainty, I have surely let my writing die. I will leave conclusions and explanations to the scientists and theologians. I will push off the false burden of the fate of souls and I will concentrate on the burden of creating art.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Love Dogs

I was fortunate to have the chance to get to know Dr. Richard McCann at the Vermont College of Fine Arts residency. I was assigned to his workshop and, with every piece that we looked at critically, like a surgeon, he cut to the heart of everyone's narratives. He kept pushing each of us to find the motive underneath our motives. Our workshop was like writing class and group therapy rolled into one. I left each day with a deep sense that a magical connection was being made among our faculty leaders (Richard and Sascha Feinstein) and the other writing students.

One of my worries going into a graduate writing program was exposing my writing to people who did not share my similar worldview. However, it has always been my hope that my writing would surpass the boundaries of the Christian literary market and would stand up under the scrutiny of even the most cynical reader. I want my writing to be universal, for someone, anyone, who reads it to be able to connect with my experience and see themselves. I thought for sure that I would be grilled and misunderstood and  ridiculed or worse: dismissed.

However, that has not been my experience at all. Okay, certainly there may have been those who have dismissed me, my interpretations, and religious assumptions; however, none have overtly. Well, there was the one professor who refused to say hello to me when I waved, but I think that may have had more to do with his poor eye sight than his desire to cold-shoulder me. In fact, Richard McCann congratulated me on my bravery for writing about spirituality. Because I knew a brief history of how the Church at large has hurt McCann, I feared his bitterness toward it would turn toward me. Not only is McCann not bitter, but also generous in spirit— he made gestures toward me that were incredibly nurturing and life-giving.

As I was finding my seat on the airport shuttle on the last day of residency, I was pleased to see Richard there. I was hoping for a few more minutes with this brilliant man. After a few minutes, we realized that we were on the same flight to DC, where I would then switch planes and he would de-board for home.

After watching a harrowing episode of Hoarders on together in the airport lobby, we sat next to each other on the plane. Richard shared a poem with me someone had previously sent him. With his melodic, raspy voice he read the poem "Love Dogs" by Rumi, translated into English by a writer and prof at the University of Georgia.  As he read this poem to me, I instantly realized that Truth is Truth and Mystery is Mystery, no matter where you find it, and the cynic in me that fears all the other cynics in the world was silenced.

Love Dogs 
One night a man was crying Allah! Allah!
His lips grew sweet with praising,
until a cynic said, “So!
I’ve heard you calling out, but have you ever
gotten any response?”

The man had no answer to that.
He quit praying and fell into a confused sleep.
He dreamed he saw Khidr, the guide of souls,
in a thick, green foliage.

“Why did you stop praising?” “Because
I’ve never heard anything back.”

“This longing you express
is the return message.”

The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.

Your pure sadness
that wants help
is the secret cup.

Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.
That whining is the connection.

There are love dogs
no one knows the names of.

Give your life
to be one of them.

Thanks to Richard and Rumi, the cynics' questions aren't as scary anymore (no matter how many answers I cannot give them.) I will continue to whine until my Master comes home.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

What Actually Stuck

A Series of summaries from the lectures I attended at my writing residency. At my age, my neural pathways are mostly carved. So, I strive, in my graduate education, to retain just a smidgeon more. This is a record, not of what I was taught, but of what actually stuck.

Ellen Lesser

It seems appropriate to look at apocalyptic literature when trying to craft the end of a short story.  Ellen’s lecture was tailored for the fiction writer, but I found much of it to be helpful in nonfiction craft as well. The current thinking in regards to certainty in the end of life, and even the end of the world as we know it, must be taken into consideration when you are writing for the current reader. What is certain about life? What is certain about salvation? What is certain in these times of global warming, inevitable environmental implosion, and world wars? The writer must be aware of what the general human consensus is if she is to connect with her readers in any real way.

Ellen’s passion for her craft seeped through every sentence of her lecture. I left with not just more tools for writing, but with a deep sense of inspiration. I want to love and know my area of concentration like this brilliant, incredibly human person. I am jealous of all the fiction writers who get to work with her this semester. However, one thing that I added to my writer’s toolbox was the knowledge of how to pitch your language to fit the tone of your subject.

End times stories demand Biblical language. Ellen took us through three short stories included in the anthology Best American Short Stories released annually. She walked us slowly through each story and pointed out how Rescue and Redemption now look to the 21st century reader—and believe me, it doesn’t look good. In fact, if you were to take the three short stories we read, you’d think we were a real cynical lot. Rescue and Redemption look more like gates into the deeper levels of hell. Is optimism even possible in the current climate?

The stories were riddled with religious imagery. There were snakes present, floods, hell-fire smoke, mentions of Eden, crosses, vines and sanctuaries. The infusion of Biblical terms and images worked to support the story’s consideration of how we should live in the end of days.

Of course, my mind honed in instead on poop imagery. Though Ellen kept directing our gaze to the religious slant of the language, I kept hearing the doo-doo slant. (I know, I have Freudian issues.) The story that took place in New Orleans during the Katrina flood was infused with the words refuse, shit, brown chop, crap, log roller, septic, boat hole (maybe that is a stretch, but I swear I heard “butthole”), movement, dump, shit storm.

My bodily function fixation, upon reflection, explains my unfailing optimism even in the end of times. (Wait for it.) I watched the language through all the pieces go from shit to compost to vine-ripened tomatoes. I saw that the writer had included gardens bursting with fruit right in the middle of the protagonist’s apocalypse. The best tasting tomatoes were growing next to his outhouse. Therefore my worldview: Even when life goes to shit, there is another power at work that can turn it all to nourishment. Ah, redemption! Oh, I like this whole pitching language business.

Of course, Lesser taught us so much more, but, alas, that is all of what actually stuck.

Lesser spent most of her time looking at “Rubiaux Rising” by Steve De Jarnatt, chosen for Best American Short Stories 2009, a story about a detoxing junkie trapped in his grandmother’s attic during Hurricane Katrina is miraculously airlifted to safety. You might want to read the end if you want to know what happens when the world does end.

Friday, January 21, 2011

What Actually Stuck

A Series of summaries from the lectures I attended at my writing residency. At my age, my neural pathways are mostly carved. So, I strive, in my graduate education, to retain just a smidgeon more. This is a record, not of what I was taught, but of what actually stuck.

Patrick Madden’s Lecture: WHERE THE ESSAYS ARE

Pat has a nuanced sense of humor that infiltrates his writing and his speaking. Even when he is unsmiling, there seems to be a smirk hiding under the surface that keeps the listener/reader on her toes, waiting for the punch line. He’s kind of adorable in an overly earnest-kind-of-way. Like the Colin Firth of the Essay World, Mr. Darcy without the scowl—though his intelligence and stature can intimidate even the stoutest of students. I highly recommend his collection of essays Quotidiana

Madden's writing allows you to sit, breath and enjoy his current of thought which generally leads to happy seas of the mundane. I guarantee you’ll want to hug him, or someone close by, after you read his stuff.

At the residency, Pat gave a practical lecture on getting your essays published. Though, you’ll have to forgive him for sneaking in lessons on the true nature of the classical essay, he cannot stop himself:

The Personal Essay…
  1. Is Not an article; Articles set out to prove something.
  2. Is Not a composition; Compositions are the cancer of the essayists mind—Beware: 5 paragraph essays may cause internal hemorrhaging! In fact, Madden might go as far as to say that the 5 paragraph-essay-structure is a blight on the face of American education.
  3. Is out to ponder something, to follow your meditative thoughts through all their wandering paths, through scenes and reflections, not knowing where they will lead. To understand the real essay, you must know its birth and history: St. Augustine wrote his Confessions, delivering a new genre of writing into the literary canon. Michel de Montaigne, the Father of the Personal Essay, nurtured the form into its maturity. Visit Madden’s website,, for a buffet of short, classical essays. You’ll be surprised by how enjoyable these quick reads are. My personal favorite: Of a Monstrous Child, about Montaigne’s experience seeing a conjoined twin (or should I say conjoined twins if he had only one head?) on the road to town. It’s actually very comforting to know what hideous thoughts others have. That is the point, in my opinion, of the personal essay: To humanize our own monsters lurking inside. Of course, Madden has fewer monstrous thoughts than I, so his tastes in essays lean toward the beauty of the world, mine toward the grotesque.

Publishing is a noble goal for the writer, and therefore, Pat gave us a few tips to take with us in our pursuits. His first advice was to read literary publications, get to know the personalities of some journals in order to know which of your pieces would be a good fit. I have found the blog Essay Daily to be a great resource for finding nonfiction journals. The blog has a fabulous list on the right sidebar called “Homes for the Essay,” which is fairly exhaustive. I’m still trying to find the journals that are just “so me.” I’ll be sure to let you know when I do. Many editors, Pat reveals to us, read only the introductions of submissions, so you need to make sure the guts and glory of your writing show up in the first few paragraphs.

Of course, Madden shared much more with us, but, alas, that is all of what actually stuck. 

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Ball Juggling 201

One semester of grad school down, three to go.

Clearly, being a full-time student added to my list of roles has kept me from updating my blog! But, as I learn to negotiate the highways and byways of life as a student, I am seeing the road with more clarity.

I have spent the past six months reading 16 books—most of which were creative non-fiction, written 6 critical essays, 6 book reviews and 150 pages of creative work, and attended two residencies—22 days worth—in Vermont! I have loved every minute of it, and it is very out of the norm for me not to be whining about something! (I'm sure the antidepressants help some, but there are some things that pills just can't cure.)

I'm starting the semester strong, reading some amazing stuff. Though it will be no surprise to anyone, I'm enjoying Flannery O'Connor—What a smart cookie! Mystery and Manners would have to be my favorite book on writing so far. I have underlined just about every sentence. My book just looks ridiculous...My underlining was supposed to cue me when I look back to see what I should include in my critical essay. I hope my professor this semester is ready for rewritten copy. Maybe I'll just change the font and he won't recognize it.  

Speaking of my advisor, I have a new one! Patrick Madden, my brilliant essay-expert of a professor from last semester has been shared with five other students and I will miss his critiques and encouragement. But, I will continue with my education of the classical essay on his site Quotidiana. I will be working this semester with the memoirist and biographer Lawrence Sutin. His work is incredible and I am loving A Postcard Memoir. The level of academic excellence we are being exposed to at VCFA is fantastic. Every time I go to research one of the faculty, I am amazed at the amount of google tags that open up. Seriously. I've decided that my next goal in life is to have a Wikipedia page dedicated to my accomplishments. It'll be one of those long-ass entries that talks about my childhood in Tucker, GA, including the baby kangaroo we had as a pet. Of course, my more technical creative nonfictionist classmates will charge me with inaccurate information....(So what if it wasn't a baby kangaroo? It was a wallaby. Same diff.) You can't just add yourself either. I've tried. It'll be up for one day and then someone out in Wiki Land deletes your entire entry, officially saying that your life is just not important enough. They may have a point. Whoever "they" is.

So, if you are up for it. We can have a mini-online book club. It'll be called: Don't you wish you'd get credit for reading this book like me? Book 1: Mystery and Manners

by Flannery O'Connor. Book 2: A Postcard Memoir

by Lawrence Sutin. You can even order these books straight from my blog. Yippeee! The memoir has beautifully-written lyrical essays that were inspired by Sutin's postcard collection. I have enjoyed reading them (each essay is quite short) and then using some of the postcard images for my own inspiration to write.

Feel free to leave comments about the books. We can have a dialogue going in my comments box. If you say something really interesting, I might even include it in my critical essay. Though, I won't cite you, if that's okay. Just know that imitation is the biggest form of flattery.

So, as I continue to strike a balance with teaching, schooling, parenting, and living, I will try to bring in more blogging. What's one more ball to juggle? If I drop one, well, that'll just be more balls to shag. And, who doesn't like a good shag every now and then?